Due to the kindness of a coworker, Jeronimo Nisa, I was able to go and shoot the baseball and softball championships in Montgomery last week. In my 19 years at The Daily, I had never been to the state championships in these sports. I have covered championships in nearly everything else, but somehow, as much as I love baseball, I had never been able to shoot the state championships. I loved it! Two of my teams won which makes it doubly good. Hartselle High won the school’s 8th baseball championship and Hatton High won the school’s 4th consecutive softball championship.
Now, what do you look for and how do you get it? That is the question for today. First of all, what you can do has a great deal to do with the structure of the fields you are shooting on. Lagoon Park where the softball games are played is a great place to play ball and a terrible place to photograph it. The sight lines are almost as bad as they could be. The photo boxes inside the fence have no clear sight lines to home plate and you are too far back to get very many decent infield shots. Moving around and shooting through the fences is difficult because so many fans are there you normally can’t get to a good spot without blocking a bunch of folks from seeing the game.
What I try to do every game, and especially when you have bad sight lines, is move around as much as possible. I might spend an inning or two in the photo boxes but I also try to shoot from behind the backstop. In softball games, I love shooting directly up the third baseline from behind home plate. You get good stuff on the third baseman who is usually very close and gets a bunch of balls hit her way. You can also cover action on the left side of the field from there.
I tried climbing to the tops of the bleachers and overlook the fences. That never produced a photo but it certainly looked like it would. I tried walking out the lines on right field and left field where you could shoot over the fences. There was just no spot where I felt like I could get reliable photos from so I made movement my method of choice.
The baseball was played at Paterson Field and Riverwalk Stadium, two wonderful baseball fields in Montgomery. Paterson is an old stadium. It still has some bleachers made from wood but the field is gorgeous. You can move freely in the stands and you could even shoot from the on-field photo boxes which I never actually did.
Riverwalk Stadium is a minor league facility for the Montgomery Biscuits and it is a phenomenal baseball facility. The stadium is very new and it has some amazing sight lines, just amazing. I was crawling all over that place shooting from anywhere I could. You can literally walk a path around the top of the outfield wall all the way around the stadium. From over the left field wall, you are looking back at the Montgomery skyline rising above the stadium. I used every square inch of that place and shot from anywhere I could shoot.
Some may ask, “aren’t you worried you are going to miss a photo if you are on the outfield wall?” No, not really. I know the game of baseball pretty well. I usually can tell when a play is going to have a chance of developing and I move to get in position. I have no aversion to running. I found myself on the back of the left field wall when Hartselle player Brett Blackwood reached second base. I sprinted all the way to the back of home plate so I could look up the third baseline just in case he might score. Sure enough, I got a very nice photo of him sliding home on a wild pitch. The key for me is movement. If you always shoot from behind first base, or wherever you favorite spot is, all your photos will look the same. Move around and get some diversity.
In fact, as you look at the rather extensive photo gallery with this post, pay attention to all the shooting positions you see. I think I have a shot in there representing all the angles I shot from. You will see traditional angles but you will also see angles where I took a chance. The lead photo in this post is a perfect example of looking around and trying something out of the ordinary. As I walked to get to a shooting position I saw these great windows. Nothing much happened on my first pass as Hartselle was making their last out in the first inning. When the second inning started, I ran back up to the windows and shot a couple of batters and came away with a photo I was very pleased with even knowing there was slim chance it would run in the paper.
Finally, and most importantly, you have to get the emotion of the event. This is the state championship and some of these players are playing their final games for their high schools. For some it will be the final games of their baseball and softball lives. There will be emotion win or lose. I love to get the joy. There is nothing like seeing these kids celebrate. On the other hand, I watched a boy come to bat for Spanish Fort with two out and two runners on base in the last at bat of the last inning. As he approached the plate I saw him lift his eyes toward heaven and mutter a quick prayer. I wanted Hartselle to the end the game right there but I also wanted that kid to do something good. I wish I had a photo of that moment but it is one that got away. The kid did make the last out but he did it hitting the ball.
Knowing the team is important. It is important to note the key players but also keep an eye on the coaches. Hartselle coach William Booth has the most wins in state history, now at 907, and now has 8 state titles. He is rather stoic but he was pulling for his kids. This team had early injuries and just barely made it into the playoffs. They were not the top ranked team in the state. In fact, Spanish Fort was number one and the reigning state champions. When Hartselle won, Coach Booth was as expressive and jubilant as the players so there were some great emotion shots.
Now you know how to get it done. Go have some fun covering the greatest game in the world.
I think I wrote some time ago about starting a photo essay shot completely with my iPhone. I have always wanted to do a sports story that takes you from the little leagues to the major leagues. This isn’t really it because I don’t have a major league team handy. I settled for working the great youth baseball in my town, Hartselle, Alabama. We live and breath baseball here. And we start early. Five year olds are hitting off a pitching machine in their league. The 9&10 years old kids start live pitching and they are remarkably good.
By the time the kids reach the high school level they have climbed this metaphorical ladder and look to add to the baseball glory of Hartselle High School, the eight time state champion. Conveniently, they won the 8th on the day the photo essay published. Talk about great timing.
So how does one conceive of shooting a sports story on the iPhone and how does one find the time to pursue it. First, I was inspired by a story I read about pro sports photographer Brad Mangin producing a book on the San Francisco Giants season shot on the iPhone and processed with Instagram. He talked about how the project refreshed his vision. I liked the sound of that. My vision is always needing refreshing.
I don’t like square frames all that much and Instagram only does squares so I began searching for an app that would allow me to do rectangles. I settled on the Photo Toaster Pro app and I love it. Most of the processing is a one touch process that created the feel I wanted, a kind of washed color look that would render a nostalgic feel to the images. Mr. Mangin then was my inspiration. My motivation I found a little closer to home.
My ten year old son decided to play baseball for the first time in his life. I love baseball and was a decent high school player but I promised I would not push my kids to play just so I could relive my baseball dreams. I never want to be that parent. When Peter told us he wanted to play, I decided this would be a good time to try my hand at the baseball photo essay. Plus, it would keep me from getting over involved in coaching him. I want him to enjoy the game and not have his over eager Dad over coaching him! The photo project helped me stay balanced.
I decided to do it solely on the iPhone because I liked the idea of a special challenge. Obviously, I would not be shooting game action. I wanted my essay to be more about the journey, the game, the atmosphere than about the action between the lines. I started shooting at Peter’s practices. I experimented with several different filters in Photo Toaster until I found the one I liked. I shot some around the games and shot fans and kids playing and just tried to get the feel of the game in the images. Then, I almost screwed up.
I was doing this all on my own time so I didn’t have any set plan or agenda for publishing it. In fact, I didn’t even know for sure I would offer it to the newspaper. It was simply a personal project. When I realized I actually wanted to publish it I looked at the high school schedule and they were down to the their very last game of the season and the playoffs were in the balance. I had to wait with fingers crossed to see if they made the playoffs so I would have a chance to shoot a high school game. Without that, the essay was dead.
Fortunately, the high school team pulled through and made the playoffs and I got up there and shot exactly one and half innings of one game with a few minutes of pregame. Like I said, the action was not important. It was the atmosphere I was after.
I probably only shot about 200 images total for the whole project. I would probably shoot more frames than that on a normal news assignment. Narrowing down the take wasn’t difficult because I had been doing that as I shot. I brought 40 images to the table, the 40 I included in the online gallery. I marked about twenty of them and gave them to page designer Kristin Williams. This is the point where it is tough. It is like taking your kids to school for the first day of class. You just don’t know how things will turn out but Kristin did a great job with the layout. I tried to keep my nose out of it and let her do her magic but I did offer a suggestion or two.
The problem with working on your own time is you will never get paid for it. I didn’t try to charge my newspaper. That wouldn’t have worked anyway. I have showed the photos to some other folks who may publish some of it down the line and they will pay. The thing is, I don’t guess any of us photojournalists do this for the pay. I don’t know any photojournalists getting rich. Don’t ever fall into the trap of only shooting what you know you will get paid for or what you know someone will publish. This project is mine. It has lived in my mind for years and years. I was always going to do it and now I have done it and I am pleased with it and seeing it published is very satisfying. Of course, I don’t mind if someone else pays me to publish it! That would be icing on the cake.
Using the iPhone means you have limits. The in-phone camera is a sweet little 8 megapixel deal. It is sweet as long as you don’t zoom it! Once you start to zoom you doom image quality. This limits you to one “lens.” Not a problem. In fact, that was part of the charm and the challenge. Additionally, the iPhone 5 has a panorama option. I love it and have used it several times. The dugout shot is a pano. The challenge is in turning off the traditional sports photographer that wants to do peak action and instead being a feature photographer looking for moments. Of course, the iPhone has a serious shutter lag so timing is more difficult. You get used to it but it does take practice. The other limiting factor is the thing can be hard to hold still. Camera shake afflicted a few images. Dim light means you have to seriously support the camera because you are touching the screen to fire the shutter which can easily cause camera shake.
All in all, like any photographic tool, the iPhone has a place “in the bag.” The apps are not something you can use on everyday photos but on a feature project like this one they are great. I tried to recreate the look in Aperture and threw in the towel after about a half hour. Photo Toaster created the look in about one, maybe two touches. Use the appropriate tool for the appropriate job and you will love shooting the iPhone. Try and make it do something it isn’t designed to do and you will get a headache. But I guess that is a pretty accurate description of anything in life.
Below is an image of the layout produced for The Decatur Daily by editor Kristin Williams. If you have not seen the full gallery, visit: http://garycosbyjr.photoshelter.com/gallery/Baseball-Town/G0000mj0pJ8aoM7s/
The final story in our series for the two year commemoration of the April 27, 2011 tornadoes was a really fun story on storm researchers at the University of Alabama Huntsville. Professor Kevin Knupp and his graduate and doctoral students deploy a small armada of mobile radars and weather balloons as they probe storms. They have many goals, among them, improving forecasting and also determining why storms take the paths they take.
As most of you know by now, the hug F4 and F5 tornadoes that struck north Alabama on April 3, 1974 and the EF5 tornado that struck on April 27, 2011 covered almost exactly the same ground through two north Alabama counties. There are rather predictable storm tracks in several places in Alabama where multiple tornadoes have hit over the years. Why? It is a great question but no one knows the answer. Tornadoes are still relatively rare and being in position to study one in detail is difficult. I can point to three major storm tracks in both Lawrence and Limestone Counties in north Alabama and an infamous storm track between Tuscaloosa and Birmingham.
Ironically, I live in a little town where we have watched storm after storm approach then, at the last moment, deviate to the north and/or the south. Sometimes a storm will split and go around Hartselle on both the north and south sides. I have never ceased to be amazed at this phenomenon and no one can explain it. Maybe there is some feature of the topography that funnels storms into certain tracks. Maybe there are some weird pathways in the skies that severe storms follow. No one really knows.
I spent a very long night with the UA Huntsville researchers. I arrived at the offices across Sparkman Drive from the UA Huntsville campus. I met Professor Knupp and his researchers as they prepared to launch a weather balloon. The wind was simply howling and it was a very difficult challenge for them to get the balloon up. I got a cool video out of the launch and I was never so glad as when one of the doctoral candidates set up a portable light in the very dark parking lot so they could see what they were doing. I shot a combo of stills and video and it was great.
I then drove about thirty or forty minutes with some directions I hoped would lead me to a field research team that set up near Meridianville north of Huntsville. I was given directions and told to look for them on a field road. I was thinking all the way out my chances might not be great of finding them at 1 a.m. but I drove right to the spot. My only disappointment of the night came when the lightning stopped just before I arrived. I had visions of this great photo of the truck mounted radar with a lightning strike in the background. The rain poured down as we sat in the truck for two hours. Nothing. Not a single lightning strike. I got some cool photos of the radar truck in the middle of the driving rain but no lighting.
I finally threw in the towel at 3 a.m. and started home. I should have waited about 20 more minutes. I was caught in a blinding rain storm on a dark, dark two lane road. I was driving five miles per hour hoping not to run off the road. Fortunately, I got home with no problems and I was so excited to have been there. I have always loved storms. Perhaps I missed my calling and should have been a meteorologist. I love the weather and being with this group of highly intelligent people was well worth missing my bed time.
With this story wrapping up the series, I began thinking about all we had done in the two weeks of work. We talked to people whose lives were ruined, even destroyed, by the EF5 tornado. We talked to others who didn’t want to be in the paper but who look nervously to the skies every spring. I had been in the NEXRAD site at Hytop, Alabama and I had set in the dark middle of the night with weather researchers as they probed the stormy skies. I had witnessed a timeless battle between man and the elements. The elements still win but maybe the day is coming when the elements won’t have the dramatic impact on us they do now. Maybe all the research and technology will pay off in models that allow forecasters to give better warnings or predict storm tracks before there is a storm. Maybe lives will be saved.
In the meantime, I stood on the front porch with the Guzman family in Lawrence County at 4:05 on April 27, 2013, two years to the minute when their little girl was killed by the tornado. Too many tears are being shed. There are too many tears still to shed.
I didn’t find out about a baseball assignment until the game was already in the second inning and there was about a 45 minute drive to the field. No matter, it is playoff time in high school baseball and I would at least get there in time for an inning or two. Honestly, getting much out of an inning or two of high school baseball is an indefinite proposition. Sometimes you can shoot a whole game and get nothing. Other times you can shoot an inning and come away very happy.
To make sure you get something, start with the pitcher, always. He throws the ball to start every play. On the opposite end, shoot some of the hitters. They are attempting to hit the ball on every play. Now you have two guaranteed photos. At least you won’t leave the game empty handed. Now, you have a couple of photos in the bag, get into your favorite shooting position, the place where you are most comfortable, and look for action.
My comfort zone is along the first baseline just a few feet beyond the base. I like shooting from this position for several reasons. You get the best angle on first and second base and you usually have an unobstructed view of home plate. A 400mm lens will reach most of the field from here and it gives you the best access to shortstop, a place where many balls will be hit in high school baseball. You can also get shots of pick off attempts at first base. You get a great angle on at least two outfielders. From the first baseline you give yourself the maximum opportunity to get shots in a reasonably short period.
That being said, if I have time, I love to move around. The wonderful thing about shooting baseball is you get the opportunity to set up and frame photos in ways you don’t get with baseball or basketball. I love to move around and find a shooting spot looking directly up the third baseline from behind home plate and I equally enjoy going out behind the outfield fences and shooting, especially from behind right field and shooting straight down the first baseline. You can get a different point of view on plays at second by shooting from behind left centerfield and looking down the line between first and second. The only places I don’t enjoy shooting from are along the third baseline. I can’t seem to get comfortable on that side of the field. Not sure why but it doesn’t work well for me. I will also climb anything I can to get a higher angle but that is rare at a high school field.
I have the bottom of the fifth to the top of the seventh to shoot – the home team is obviously going to win so there will be no bottom of the seventh. As I am walking in the field, down the left field side or course, a kid hits a short fly ball into centerfield. I whip the camera up and start banging away. I got a shot but didn’t even look at my settings. I think its was shooting at 1/60th at f16. Not ideal sports settings. I fixed that. Before I got to the home dugout by third base, I got another photo of the pitcher picking off that kid who got the single on my first set of frames. Now, before I have even arrived at my shooting position, I have two photos in the bag. They will not be great but they will help fill the gallery.
I go to the press box steps and shoot my pitcher. Got that. Two decent frames and I now move on to the first baseline. My team comes to bat and I am banging away furiously. I get the star player being beaned by a pitch. The ball hit his helmet and bounced straight up. Ball in the frame! Nice. Now there is a kid on first diving back in on a snap throw. Nice dirt in the face kind of frame. My team is back in the field and a ball hit to second, second baseman charges and makes an off balance throw. Nice frames but a bad throw. Now the kid is on first. Ground ball up the middle. Double play attempt. Bang! Another decent frame.
Our sports writer says our team hasn’t been to the playoffs in forever so there will be a potential celebration photo. I moved back to the press box steps and sure enough, big dog pile on the pitchers mound. Got that. Two innings turns into a little slice of baseball heaven. Have I mentioned before how much I love baseball!
Two years can seem an eternity. Five minutes later it can seem like yesterday. Such is the nature of trauma and grief.
I was surprised when our editors decided to do a two year commemoration of the devastating April 27, 2011 tornadoes but I was all in. For me, this is the most real story I have ever covered. This is not some iffy government story where there may never be a definite outcome. It is not a short term breaking news assignment that is here today and forgotten tomorrow. This is a story that people will be living for the rest of their lives.
As soon as the idea to do this emerged, reporter Deangelo McDaniel and I simply said, “Give the job to us and we will handle it.” Dee and I were heavily involved with the coverage from the outset of the tragedy and we have shared life and death with so many people over the last two years I would not have had it any other way. For me, giving a voice to those who are voiceless is a great privilege and I would keep telling stories until there were none to tell.
We began the series with Tina Little whose son Chase Adams was among the 14 killed in Lawrence County, Alabama. Day two featured her surviving son, Justin Adams, who lost his leg due to the severe injuries he suffered. We told their stories on two days rather than one because their stories are so different, yet they share so much. To do either story justice, they demanded two different days.
Doing visuals is a little difficult. So much of what happened is now past it can be difficult to tell their story in photos. Tina Little frequently visits her son’s grave. I asked her if we could come with her. She agreed and we tailed along as she kissed her son’s head stone. Her story is tough to hear, especially having gone through the death of my own child three years ago.
Justin’s story is more visual, and I hate to say it this way, but having lost his leg and learned to use a prosthetic, there were more ways to photograph him. There is a “cold” aspect to my job that bothers me but showing his prosthetic limb is part of the tragic story he lives every day. Justin lives on the spot where the tornado took away his mobile home and his mother’s house and within a hundred yards of where rescuers found his brother’s body. There is a small cross beside the road where Chase was found. Even now, it is hard to look at that place knowing the pain his death caused both Tina and Justin.
I know I am going to shoot video on these stories but I frustrate myself from time to time not being ready to do so. Simple things like not having a tripod out or not having at least a shotgun mic turn what could be really good video into so-so video. I have to be more diligent. I plan to do things one way but when things are happening I just jump in and shoot. Not a great way to do it and I have to work on video discipline. I recorded these interviews while Deangelo was doing his interviews and that is tough because I have to jump around his questions and the sounds he is making. Ideally, I would do a separate interview for the video but things didn’t work that way this time.
Knowing that you are going to be digging into painful, intimate details of a person’s life, it helps more than you can imagine to be compassionate. The stories are not about you. We tried to get a couple of people to open up and talk to us and they would not do it. I mean, they were very polite but didn’t want to open up. There is a man in southern Limestone County who Dee and I have gone and talked to twice and he won’t let us tell his story. He told us this time he is always glad to see us and we are welcome any time but he doesn’t want to be in the news. That has to be fine. It breaks the heart though. He has given us two of the most telling quotes anyone has given us and we can’t use either.
Since I am not telling you his name, I can tell you when we went by last year he told us he felt like he was still in the storm a year later. This year we dropped by and he said he didn’t want to jinx himself by talking to us. It is April and what if another storm came. We realized this man, who was hit in 1974 by an F5 tornado and again April 27, 2011 by an EF5, has spent the last 39 years watching the sky in fear every April. That is the thing you have to respect. The man has an amazing story but doesn’t want to share it.
On the other hand, Tina and Justin want to tell their stories. We go, we listen, we tell the story and, yes, we cry. Journalism, real journalism, involves you in the lives of the people you cover. The camera and the notebook are no shield. That compassion thing goes a long way toward opening doors but it can also lead you into places of pain and suffering that are almost beyond imaging.
Below the photo gallery you will see the two videos that accompany the stories. I hope you take the time to watch both. They are moving stories.
Life in many small towns revolves around the schools, particularly the high school. Painted on water towers all over the place you see something like, “Welcome To Hartselle, Home of the Tigers.” We all take pride in the schools and towns identify with them and, in many cases, the schools are the life-blood of the community. Hartselle, Alabama is just such a town.
Hartselle closed out the old school and opened a new one over spring break a few weeks ago and we played it up big time in the newspaper. We did a double truck of photos for the opening day and sent another photographer to shoot video. We also did a photo page one the final day at the old school as the students and teachers moved out. For opening day, we sent two writers and two photographers which is a nearly unheard of level of coverage for our newspaper.
No one does better video than my colleague Jeronimo Nisa and his video is very good. He followed the senior class president around and let him show off the new school. I wandered the hallways and classrooms and did the still images. I think the four of us produced a very nice opening day package. But why pay so much attention to a new high school opening?
The city of Hartselle has a population of about 14,000 and a pretty limited revenue stream. The school, at a cost of more than $40 million, is a significant investment that will take a generation to pay for. The political wrangling to get the money for the high school was part of the news for at least a year and the continuing struggles with design and contracting and Title Nine issues to make sure the girls programs got the same facilities as the boys played a big role in the newspaper.
I think too, the decision to build a new high school in Hartselle will significantly impact whether Decatur builds a new high school and Decatur is our primary market. Newspapers play a role in influencing public policy by what we decide to cover and how we decide to cover it. By playing up the new Hartselle High, one would expect the people in Decatur to react in a way that would increase demand for Decatur to build a new school in order to not be outclassed by a much smaller neighboring town. There are already some natural rivalries there so a new school in Hartselle could provide the impetus to build in Decatur. We shall see.
The photo gallery attached to this post features some images from the last day at the old school and also from the first day at the new school. I found the assignment very interesting. First of all, I live in Hartselle and my children will likely benefit from the new school. Secondly, so many of the people in town graduated from the old Hartselle High there are great feelings about the old school. Those feelings will now be transferred to the new school along with the new generation. In other words, I am bearing witness to a passing of the torch, a generational change. Any time one has such a privilege it is special. Sometime in the future the community will decide to replace this new high school and people will then be looking back at the pictures I shot, probably long after I have gone from this earth. That is a tremendous privilege and I am thankful I was there to bear witness.
Let me begin here by saying unequivocally, I HATE THE STUDIO! There, I got that off my chest. I love shooting portraits but I hate the studio. I am a location lover. Some folks really geek out in a plain, blank room. I don’t. A plain, blank room speaks nothing about the person you are photographing. I want them in their own environment.
That can’t always happen. We did a series of portraits of cancer survivors. The person I was assigned to shoot was asked to come to the studio. I had no intention of putting this woman in front of a piece of blank paper and making her picture. It was a cold day but I simply didn’t want some bland portrait. The photograph should speak to who she is or to what she has endured.
I took a stroll around the building then outside the building. The shadows on a fence that borders one side of the property looked good to me. The trees had no leaves so all you had were stark branches weaving this menacing patter. I figured that was a decent enough metaphor for a woman who had been through the darkness of a life-treatening disease.
I asked her if she would mind enduring a few minutes of cold to do the portrait. She was agreeable so I set up outside while our writer interviewed her in the building. I used a single SB28DX with a shoot through umbrella. I had to get it pretty close to make sure her face was light enough and I had to put her in a little spot of shade but not too close to the fence. I couldn’t have my light bleeding over into the shadows.
I rolled out a chair and placed her about 25 feet from the fence with the light nice and close. She sat down and I worked as many angles as I could to get something that felt right. She has a beautiful face and hair and that part was easy to work with. I used an 80-200 and I think I shot most nearly all the way stopped down to preserve enough detail in the background to keep the shadows in tact.
I could never have done this inside. I could have created some shadows on the background but never anything like this. I would still have preferred to have done the picture in her environment but I think this worked out okay. I didn’t keep her out in the cold weather too long and we were all happy. When you are tasked with a portrait, let the portrait speak. The photograph has a language that can be communicated with the face, the light, the environment and the pose. Use them to your advantage and don’t just settle for a quick snap in a studio when you can do something better.
There is a wonderful part of the Lord’s prayer that goes like this; “give us this day our daily bread…” Oh no, he is preaching again! Run away, run away! Not really a sermon. Don’t panic. I probably won’t say the “J” word more than once or twice. Settle down. Now, where was I? Oh, yes, daily bread. Which brings me to the idea of keeping it fresh. That prayer that Jesus taught his disciples was actually born out of the old covenant where the priests put fresh bread out daily in the holy place in the tabernacle and the temple. Now, history/theology lesson over.
What this has to do with photojournalism is obvious, isn’t it? Okay, maybe some of y’all don’t think like I do so I will explain. After all, when I do the dishes after dinner I plot the overthrow of small nations so some might not quite follow my logic. Keeping fresh daily in the photojournalism world is one of the greatest challenges you will face as you plough through your career. Think about it. You will do the same kinds of assignments over and over and over again and you will shoot the same events over and over and over again. It can get a little boring. We had an editor once who used to say, “We need a good murder today.” I never want that to happen but there are days when I would sure enough like for something to happen.
Staying fresh is tough. So how do you do it? I am so glad you asked. Please turn in your Bibles with me to… oh, sorry, I forgot. This isn’t a sermon but a photo lesson. I will try to stay on point. But like a good southern preacher, I do like to run down rabbit trails every now and then. (If you don’t know what that means, GO TO CHURCH EVERY NOW AND THEN FOR CRYING OUT LOUD!) Okay, enough, enough. I know.
There is nothing like giving yourself assignments to help you stay fresh. That or getting a new piece of photo gear but the photo gear tends to be expensive. However, when you combine a new piece of photo gear with a self-assigned project you have pure freshness gold! I am not joking. I purchased an iPhone 5 earlier this year. I am easing into its amazing photo capabilities and much of what I am doing is not for publication; however, there is this cool project I am shooting all on my iPhone and it was inspired by a guy named Brad Mangin who is a big time sports photographer. He covers the San Francisco Giants and he recently published a photo book shot using the Instagram app. That didn’t click for me. I played with Instagram and like it but I wouldn’t use it for the paper, or would I?
My ten-year old decided to play baseball this year and we live in one of the baseball craziest towns I have ever seen. These folks are serious! I thought, “No way I can do a Brad Mangin book on major league baseball, but what about a photo project on my little baseball town?” At about the same time, I found a really nice app for my iPhone that lets me do the cool toning stuff that Instagram does but without having to make everything square. A project was born. I am calling it, innovatively enough, Baseball Town. I am shooting it all on my iPhone and processing the images using Photo Toaster. And I am having a blast!
Each time to the ball field I am collecting a new image or two and I am having fun. THE KEY TO STAYING FRESH IS TO HAVE FUN!!! Okay, did anyone miss that because if you did I can always crack open the Bible to where Jesus said we are to all have fun. Gotcha there didn’t I. Some of you are running to get your Bibles to see if Jesus actually said that. Others of you are so stunned that Christians are allowed to have fun that you need a resurrection because your hearts just stopped.
Now you know the secret to fresh photojournalism and you know how to scare Christians to death. Just have fun! Keep a project or two working. Make them something you are interested in because you will do best at projects that interest you. I happen to love baseball. I am learning how to shoot with the iPhone so there is magic there for me. It will be something else for you. Find it and enjoy it and have a ton of fun and surprise your boss with a really cool photo essay.
Enjoy this sample of my project which is just now getting started. By the way, keep an eye out throughout this year. I have another set of special projects I am working on that are going to be phenomenal. I can’t wait to share them with you but I can only hint now. This is a project I have dreamed of doing for many years, for most of my career even, and it is actually under way. If I may paraphrase the Black Eye Peas, this is gonna be a good, good year! (That good looking kid in the catching gear is my son!)
After 24 years as a newspaper photographer it is pretty rare to have an assignment I have never before shot. I went to Huntsville this week to shoot the state finals in wrestling. I don’t think I have ever shot a wrestling meet before. If I have, it was so long ago it was back in the film era. I was so unfamiliar with the sport I was slightly concerned about how to shoot the event.
I decided to go a little early and shoot some matches that were completely irrelevant to our readers. I quickly found there was nothing to worry about. No matter what the sport, there are some universal truths that apply to pretty nearly all of them. There will be periods of action. There will be periods of reaction. There will be moments around the edges that make great pictures.
I approached the first match with the intention to simply shoot some frames of the action to get used to what was going on. It wasn’t all the difficult. They have a ring to work in and most of the time the action is more in straining, pulling and twisting than in running like you would find in a field sport. The second thing I noticed is the coaches are very entertaining. By the end of the first match I already had some nice action, an excellent coach photo and a very nice reaction shot. Wow, this ain’t so bad!
Quickly, I scored a good prematch photo of a kid praying before his event. Then that same kid gave me a great action moment and an even better celebration moment after he won. I hadn’t even gotten to a match I was supposed to cover.
By the time the four matches I was assigned to shoot rolled around, I was totally comfortable and was looking for the best angles and shooting positions. One of my four assigned matches gave up great action shots but I was in the wrong spot for reaction. He faced away from me toward where his school’s fans were sitting. Lesson learned; find the fans and put them at your back because your kid is going to react in their direction.
The final match was also the heaviest weight class I was going to shoot. I got a nice psych shot of one of the wrestlers before the match. I decided to start wide and then shoot tight action. I did a few wide frames of the match and suddenly the ref is signalling a pin. Whoaa! The kid won in 21 seconds and all I had was a few wide shots. Of course, this was the most important of the matches I was to shoot. The young man was so psyched up he really didn’t even celebrate much. The match was over so fast he didn’t have time to burn off his pre-match psych up. He left the mat looking mean. I was only hoping he wasn’t about to take me down!
I found out wrestling is pretty fun. Not as much fun as covering a rodeo, but pretty fun none the less! I have still never shot ice hockey or Australian Rules Football or Cricket. Now there is a weird game. Doubt they bring any Cricket matches to Decatur but you just never know.
I love special people. I was just like most of you before my wife and I had a son with special needs. Our little boy Reece was born with Down syndrome. In his too-short life he taught me more about love than I had learned in all my years of living. Now, even though Reece has left this life, I carry him in my heart and all the lessons of love he taught. Now when I see someone with special needs, I embrace their love.
I had been exposed to people with special needs both mental and physical, perhaps more than most in the general public, due to a variety of photo assignments. I did not know how to embrace them. No photo assignment could do that for me. I never allowed myself to really get inside their world. It was a strange and alien place to me and I allowed myself to be pushed away by the physical and mental issues.
I learned my lesson through Reece’s life. I now understand there is no purer form of love than the love a special needs person gives every day unless it might be the pure love of God. I might even be so bold as to say that God allows special needs people to exist because He wants to demonstrate that extremely pure love to us and I don’t know of any other human being who could possibly show such love. Or maybe that pure love can only be shown through pure people. Now, on to Special Olympics.
I had the chance to shoot the regional qualifier for the Special Olympics State Games at the Aquadome pool. I have done this event several times but this year I paid more attention to the special part and a little less to the athletic part. Some of the swimmers are quite fast. Some float along at a snail’s pace. You know what, it really doesn’t matter. The very act of competing is an accomplishment that should be lauded. There are winners who qualify for the state meet and some of those will qualify for the national games and I am pretty sure there are international games as well.
One of the more remarkable things happens outside the pool. Look around and you see special needs people who have great friendships, who carry on about like anyone else would. You see others who are completely dependent upon someone else and have to be helped in and out of the pool. It is a remarkable mix of people. I decided to look more for those interactions this year. One of the mysteries I could never explore with Reece was the question I had of how he perceived the world. I still wonder. I wish I could ask someone with special needs, “How do you see the world, how do you perceive it?” It would, of course, be an absurd question. How could anyone answer such a question without having both my frame of reference and his own to compare.
So I watch and I wonder and I wish. There is a lesson here that all of us so called “normal” people can learn. We all perceive the world a bit differently. The world comes to us through different sets of filters. Some are genetic and beyond our control. Others come from our environment. Some are religious. Some are political. Some are given us by our parents. Some are given us by our friends and social relationships. Some are even given to us by the media we consume. The bottom line; we are all different. The Bible has this really interesting quote from Jesus. He said for us not to judge others because the measure we use to judge others will be used to judge us.
We are all alike and not alike. The line between a person with special needs and a “normal” person is pretty thin, sometimes it is only a chromosome. We have much to learn from one another and if we will try to see the world from someone else’s point of view we might be surprised at how very right they suddenly seem. Who knows, it might make the world a better place.
One thing I learned in doing a special section on people with Down syndrome a few years ago was how diverse their interests are. One or two of those guys are in these photos. Lucas Compton was one I interviewed and photographed for that section. He is a big wrestling fan. I asked him if he still like wrestling and he still does but he has changed heroes. Now the guy he used to like is a bum! How very like us.
One thing I will share with you about photographing people with special needs. They are the most unpretentious people in the world. They are generally so open with you it is stunning. I think it comes from they way they see the world. They are very trusting people and I have usually found the parents or guardians to be very easy to approach and get along with. So many caregivers and parents and guardians want people to know their children, brothers, sisters, whatever the relation may be, and know what great people they are.
I will never forget being at a basketball game one time and seeing a woman caressing a young man who was in a wheel chair in what most would consider a completely helpless and dependent state. The love that woman had for her son was amazing to me. All I could see were difficulties. She saw those too, I am sure, but the love made the difficulties seem not so bad. Having some experience in this area I can tell you that your capacity to love grows exponentially when you love someone with special needs. It is amazing and I will never the same.
Sometimes I write a post that isn’t so much about photography but good photojournalism is empathetic at its core. I can’t tell you anything here about the x’s and o’s of photography but I can tell you about being a human. That always comes first whether it is photojournalism or life.